It’s hard to cast what happens in this movie in purely positive or negative terms. Like all of Malick’s work, Knight of Cups feels more like a dream than a narrative—flashes of memory mixed with hope and fear, despair and exultation. And it may also be, as the director suggests with his allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of sorts.
But we can at least say with some degree of confidence that Rick wants more depth than his superficial life has provided him thus far. Also: Nancy, his ex-wife, is a doctor who tenderly cares for horrifically scarred patients—many of whom (according to the credits) are real-life burn victims. Rick admits to himself that Nancy gave him the closest sense of happiness he’d ever known. He says to her, “You gave me peace. You gave me what the world can’t give. Mercy. Joy. Love.” And it seems that, despite many false turns, Rick does begin to find his way back to something worth having—repairing some of the damage done inside his family and coming to better appreciate his flawed father.
Knight of Cups takes its name from a Tarot card bearing a character who plods along astride a white horse—a symbol of purity and spirituality. Taking things one step further, the movie's posters show Rick (the presumed knight) upside down. In fortune-telling lore, that upside-down card signifies a situation that at first seems wonderfully exciting but turns out to be quite unfulfilling—much like Rick’s life.
The Tarot is referred to regularly in the film: Rick visits a fortune-teller at one point, and every new segment of the movie begins with a subtitle screen referencing a new card (the moon, the sun, the high priestess, the hanged fool, death, etc.).
There are allusions to other belief systems and religions as well. Indeed, many of Rick’s dalliances with women can be taken as metaphors for flirtations with various religions. One woman, a stripper who says she changes her “reality” every evening, seems closely associated with Hinduism: They vacation at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where a Hindu shrine appears in the background. We also see a man playfully slap a thin stone onto his brow, imitating the Hindu “third eye.” Another woman, calm and peaceful, is shown doing yogic exercises in front of a statue of the Buddha. She rejects Rick’s advances, saying, “I don’t want to wreak havoc in men’s lives anymore”—an echo of the Buddhist concept of peaceful, emotionless Nirvana. Rick visits a Zen garden with yet another woman and visits with a man who apparently played at being an Eastern monk for a while.
Rick also visits a museum filled with Christian artwork. And his father is shown praying, petitioning God for forgiveness. Quotations from the Bible and Christian prayers echo throughout the movie. And before the film ends, we meet a priest who says that suffering is a gift from God, not a curse—that it helps bind us closer to Him. We're presented with the overarching idea that even though Rick's dad may have walked along the Christian “path” like a drunk, that doesn’t mean it’s not the right path.
As mentioned, Rick gets around. Each step on his journey involves—and revolves around—a different woman. And while these relationships may be metaphorical, they're also explicitly rendered when it comes to the sexual side of things. We see several women either without tops or fully nude. At least twice Rick seems to be involved with two women at once. Another liaison links him to a married woman. One woman—in an image seemingly separated from the rest of the movie—dominates the screen, her breasts obscured only by black paint, black X’s painted on her back.
Sex scenes include movements, sounds and partial nudity. Rick spends time in a strip club where panting patrons and aggressively moving dancers are sometimes sexually entwined. A modeling shoot depicts a heavily muscled woman in a bikini posing with a more petite model, with the photographer insinuating that the two are lovers. There's talk of pregnancy and uncertain paternity.
It's implied that a woman gets an abortion, and that it broke her heart. Rick’s brother, Barry, is emotionally scarred, and he asks Rick to help him feel “something.” Anything. He threatens playfully to jab a fork in Rick’s eye, then pokes his own hand with the utensil. He slaps at furniture with a machete. He breaks chairs across the dining room table. Rick’s father appears to wash his hands with blood.
Rick’s apartment is robbed at gunpoint. It’s also shaken by an earthquake, sending furniture and knickknacks crashing to the floor. (A potted plant from a floor above nearly crashes down on Rick).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rick’s hedonistic lifestyle is saturated with all manner of alcohol. A one-night stand pours champagne down his shirt in an effort to wake him up. Revelers lie passed out around his apartment. There's talk of drugs letting you see things most people don’t. “It opened up this window for me,” a woman says. “I call it the window of truth.” She suggests that Rick may have had the same sort of experience.
Terrence Malick movies are like onions. Remove a layer, and there’s always another one to explore. And sometimes they can make your eyes burn, too.
The nudity here is pervasive and lingering. Rick’s philandering, after all, isn’t just an unfortunate adjunct, it's inexorably entwined to the story itself.
Then there are the frequent allusions to the Tarot and counter-Christian spirituality.
Peel past those layers, though, and the movie moves from sour to sweet. Knight of Cups is ultimately the story of a man who, like some country song somewhere, was looking for love—and meaning—in all the wrong places. And, in time, that simple truth becomes obvious to him.
While we could leave it there, Malick seems to be trying to take it one step further—insinuating that love and meaning is found, finally, in God.
“My son,” Rick’s father tells us, even as he doesn’t directly tell Rick himself, “I know you. I know you have a soul.”
Knight of Cups—the name of which comes from that problematic figure of the Tarot whose garments are covered with symbolic fish—is ultimately a quest for a pearl, Rick’s own soul.
But the onion still stings.